1997 Ford Senior Players
by Jack Berry
Only Volkswagen got away with producing the same car every year but finally, the Beetle lost its appeal and now it's a rarely seen relic of the '50s.
In the car business you need some new chrome, some new lines to keep the product fresh and, of course improvements to make it handle and perform better.
The same can be said for golf courses and definitely it is true of the Tournament Players Club of Michigan which will host the $1.8 million Ford Senior Players Championship, July 10-13, the seventh straight year the Senior Tour's richest full-field championship has been played on the Jack Nicklaus-designed course.
Nicklaus and the PGA Tour ordained changes on six holes after last year's championship and the result should be a very stern test from the 14th hole on home and a few more strokes on the scorecard with the winning score more like the first three years rather than the last three.
Jim Albus was nine under in 1991, the first year at TPC Michigan. Dave Stockton was 11 under in 1992 and Jim Colbert was 10 under in 1993.
But the last three years, as the players got to know where to go and what to avoid, it was 17, 16 and 13 under par for Stockton, J.C. Snead and Raymond Floyd.
In place of new chrome and rounded fenders on the '97 TPC model, there are more trees, more sand and more rough.
Billy Dettlaff, a PGA Master Professional and general manager of TPC Michigan from its beginning, said the intent was to toughen the course for the tournament players, especially since this is the Senior Tour's showcase major championship with its richest full-field purse of $1.8 million and first prize of $270,000.
It shouldn't be a cushy ride and up to now the only pothole on the back nine ride home to the big checks was the Green Monster 14th hole, the par 4 with two wetland carries that almost always brings out some nasty words those Senior Tour grandpas wouldn't want the grandkids to hear.
Now there's even been some tightening on the pushover par 5 13th. The Green Monster still is the Green Monster, one of the most difficult holes on the entire Senior Tour, and the par 3 15th holds its own very nicely -- it was the toughest par 3 last year and ranked fourth toughest hole overall.
The par 4 16th, a bit on the easy side, and the comfortable par 5 17th, didn't present that much of a challenge before the troublesome 18th, the second most difficult hole on the course.
Those last six holes should be considerably more bracing this year. The 18th, already stern with a wetland on the left side (where Snead lost the 1992 title), a creek that crosses the fairway just past the drive zone and a huge cottonwood tree up the right side, got tougher with the addiction of more trees to close the tiny escape window on the right side.
"There are even fewer holes where a player has mental relief," Dettlaff said. "They are going to have to think all the way around."
That was reminiscent of an exchange with Hubert Green in the early years of Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village, an absolute gem of a course and very demanding. Green, who had a very good round that day, was asked if he enjoyed the course.
"Enjoy it? My head hurts from thinking so hard," Green said.
That's what has been happening at TPC Michigan with each little addition. A lot more concentration is called for, as it should be for a major championship.
One of the holes that will have the boys thinking is the par 5 17th. Is it a wind-in-the-hair, muscle car convertible or sedate sedan? Maybe an eagle. Maybe a trip through the ball washer, the lake that extends up the left side of the hole and behind the green.
The change on the 521-yard 17th is the meatiest. Until now, players were hesitant to try for the green in two because the tee stared at the water and a driver put them in it. They opted for a 3-wood, then a layup and wedge. Boring.
Nicklaus, dueling Snead in 1995, went for it with a 3-iron second, made eagle and forced a playoff with Snead. A number of players, including two-time champion Stockton, suggested the hole be made more tempting so a new tee was built last fall, back farther and to the left of the original tee. It will put the driver back in the players' hands.
Some players, wanting nothing to do with the lake, played to the 13th fairway but that boulevard was closed with a half dozen trees. And when those folks plant trees, they don't plant seedlings.
Part of the three-acre lake on the left side was filled in to create a 30-yard wide landing zone. And the front left greenside bunker was filled in. It means that a good drive will leave a 190 to 215-yard second shot with the chance of running the ball onto the long, narrow green. It should make it a more exciting hole for the galleryites and give someone trailing the leader an opportunity to do some serious damage.
Other changes were made on the second, ninth, and 16th holes, all par 4s, and the par 5 13th.
The 506-yard 13th curves left and has been a pushover from the beginning, the easiest hole on the course. Thirteen surrendered 10 of the championship's 21 eagles last year and more birdies than pars: 151 to 134.
Two drive zone bunkers have been added on the right side and heavier rough should set the tone for the last six holes.
Besides the changes on the 13th and 17th, the shortest back nine par 4, the 16th, grew 22 yards to 398 with a repositioned tee. The deep greenside bunker and multi-level green still make it a testing hole even though it's a long iron from the tee and short iron to the green.
While most of the changes were made on the back, there was some tweaking on the front. A drive zone bunker and three healthy blue spruce trees tightened the 411-yard second hole and again, they didn't plant seedlings -- these monsters are 20-30 feet high.
The 452-yard bunkerless ninth was something of a soft-touch in the past and ranked 14th in difficulty last year with three double bogeys the highest scores on the hole out of 312 cracks at it over four days.
The ninth is bunkerless no more. A bunker was cut into a drive zone knoll on the left side and three large spruces accent the dogleg. It makes it a better-looking hole and it tightens the drive zone. Add some rough and another soft touch bites the dust.
And that's the shiny new '97 model TPC Michigan. Fully equipped for thrills and some chills. A muscle car.
Jack Berry is the secretary-treasurer of the Golf Writers Association of America.
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